Documentary Productions

Archive Researchers, Documentary Productions

Interview with the archive researchers behind “Diego Maradona”, Asif Kapadia latest documentary


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“Diego Maradona” is the latest Asif Kapadia documentary, and it is fully archive-driven – more than 500 hours of never-before-seen archive footage were used. The documentary explores the man behind the icon and it was in the spotlights at Festival de Cannes 2019. The archival production is a result of a joint effort of Archive Producers Fiammetta Luino and Lina Caicedo, and Argentina-based Archive Researchers Laura Tusi and Rita Falcon. Fiammetta and Laura are part of Archive Valley’s community of professional archive researchers and it was a great opportunity to get some insights about one of the most anticipated documentaries of the year.

The project has involved a “small army” of archive researchers. How did you all end up working on this film?

Lina: Before this I had been working as a researcher at a television production company where I had been lucky enough to work with Miriam Walsh, an incredible Archive Producer who not only had a wealth of experience under her belt, but who also taught me to see archive in a different way. Doing archive research with Miriam was never boring, I was always learning something new and through her support and guidance, I started developing my own taste and eye for what I felt worked well visually in a story. Perhaps it was the space and confidence she gave me that allowed me to develop the curiosity and appreciation that I have for archive today.

After working with Miriam, I decided that it was time  to spread my wings and look for something different. I had been a huge fan of Asif’s work and I was particularly inclined to work with him after watching a Film4 interview where he discussed the filmmaking process of “Amy”. In this interview he spoke about the forensic research that had been carried out, the layers to the story and the importance of archive. But what caught my attention the most, was the fact that he didn’t know much about his protagonist at the start of the process and it was only along the way that he started to figure out who she was and what the story was. To me this sounded like the sort of creative process I wanted to be part of. A creativity journey and deep filmmaking of sorts.

I reached out to Asif’s company and didn’t hear back straight away. About 6 months later, I received an email telling me that Asif was developing his third feature doc and whether I wanted to come in for an interview.

Fiammetta : I started working on the project as a translator back in 2016, when they were cutting a teaser to raise the money for the film. Some Italian footage needed to be translated into English, so a friend put my name forward as an Italian speaker who could do the job. At the time I was leaving behind a career in the art world to follow my dream to make documentaries. I knew about Asif’s work, I had watched and loved both Senna and Amy. So I gave all I could on that first assignment and communicated quite strongly my interest in the project! Then came more translations, then a work experience, then some research and in the end… everything that had to do with Italy, from the research of the story, to the relationships with all contributors there and the sourcing and delivery of all the Italian archive.

Rita: I met George Pank, one of the producers at On the Corner, in Buenos Aires, in a bar, back in 2015. We started talking casually, and he told me he was interested in going to Fiorito, the neighbourhood were Maradona was brought up, for a project in development he was working on. A friend of mine helped out with this Fiorito visit, and we stayed in touch over email. George already knew I worked on film archive research and distribution. In 2016 during Berlin Film Festival we reconnected and he asked if I could send my CV because they needed archive researchers on the ground to bring in material from Argentina. I immediately thought of Laura to partner up in this because she is on of the most experienced professionals in the field and I knew it was going to be a very intense journey.

Laura: I have been working as an archive producer and researcher for a decade, Rita and I had worked together before and we trusted each other. In the first interview we had on Skype I felt that the OTC recruiting team saw that we were well prepared to do this. I had seen Senna and Amy, when they hired us I couldn’t believe it, but quickly it felt both right and daring.

Director Asif Kapadia has gained a huge recognition with two others archive-driven stories – Senna (2010) and Amy (2015). What was different, in terms of gathering archive footage, in this film?

Fiammetta:  From an archive perspective, Diego Maradona presented some specific challenges that maybe were not so predominant in Senna and Amy. The language is one: everything is either in Italian or in Spanish, so everything had to be translated. On top of that, Naples is a city with a unique, strong identity and culture. Part of my job as an Italian mother-tongue Archive Producer also became a matter of being able to convey to Asif and Chris King, the editor, the flavour and nuances of the language being spoken in the archive and the cultural context behind the images.

The other challenge we encountered was that hardcore fans in Naples had told us at the beginning that everything concerning Diego had already been seen! So Lina and I had to delve into a vast array of secondary and unconventional sources of archive, in order to find unseen archive material, crucial to the story Asif wanted to tell. This meant that we were often dealing with individuals and institutions not used to license material, a process that has demanded a lot of perseverance, care and creativity !

Lina and Fiammetta in Napoli


Lina: I didn’t work on Senna or Amy – but as Fiammetta said one of the huge differences was language.

Asif didn’t speak Spanish or Italian, so it was very difficult for him to build up a direct personal relationship with Diego and the key contributors. So he had to trust in both Fiammetta and I to create the links, build the relationships, set up the interviews, get access to personal archive and finally negotiate the deals. It was a huge collaboration.

The other difference was perhaps a cultural one. Although I am Latin-American, I do not live there and so it took me awhile to get used to the fact that the archive sector isn’t as developed as it is in the US and the UK. There isn’t a whole structure of people exclusively dedicated to archive, who can give you clear answers with solid results. Everything is quite elusive and you sort of have to find your own way. Everything is case by case and there are so many grey areas. This was something that was constantly playing against us, which I don’t think was the case on Amy and Senna.

Laura: Although I read about the archive research methods applied in Senna and Amy, I didn’t take part in those films so I’d rather refer to the overall process of covering a celebrity like Diego Maradona: we had a very long career to document, 4 decades of registers in many countries, as a sports man, a family man and a celebrity, so the sources for footage were definitely too many: from long standing TV networks, sport institutions, to his relatives home movies, (to begin with)…  All in several supports, with different levels of access and licensing terms. Chaotic at first glance. Rita and I set up a map of archive footage providers and an access approach plan. When we got the first screeners everything started to fall into place and we started to work with Lina. That process took three years and we faced different challenges along the way. I was amazed with their level of organization, Raquel Alvarez, production manager,  was very helpful. She worked in both Senna and Amy so she knew!

Rita: I didn’t work in the previous films either, so I couldn’t compare. It was very challenging because Maradona’s career was an incredibly rich story to tell and we were driven by the desire to find different footage of Maradona than the images we were used to seeing on TV or on the hundreds of documentaries made before. We started our process by getting our hands on all the biographies written on him, in order to jot down significant events that would have been taped and broadcasted from Argentina, which is were our research took place, or that could be in hands of fans, or collaborators of Diego. We also did many informal interviews with people that had worked with him or covered sports for different media, in order to secure our sources of archive. So we pretty much covered all the angles: press, radio, photos, broadcasters. We became addicts to Maradona’s footage and at the end of the process we felt like we knew him deeply!

One could say that he has a very personal and modern way to create doc portraits out of archives.
How did you collaborate with him in terms of archive ?

Fiammetta: Working with Asif on this film has been an amazing experience. Asif’s documentaries truly emerge from the existing archive and from the interviews he conducts; they are distilled through a long process of watching and listening, of observing and reflecting. For that reason, he likes to watch and work on the footage on his own Avid, while Chris, the editor, cuts the film on a nearby station. So while Asif and Chris were discovering the footage and cutting the film, Lina and I were in the room next door, doing our own parallel review of the footage in function of the evolving cut of the film, looking for new archive footage when new directions in the cut required new images or simply helping Asif and Chris to find the right material among the thousands of hours that we had gathered.

That meant that we were in constant dialogue with Asif throughout the making of the film and that has been an incredible privilege for me, as it has allowed me to peer straight into the creative workings of Asif’s filmmaking.

It also meant that impossible footage requests landed on my desk regularly! But I like challenges. And thanks to Asif’s relentless optimism, we did end up finding things we thought we would never find. So that was a precious lesson in itself and I am grateful to Asif for having taught me that.

Lina: The collaborative process with Asif is an ongoing conversation. Very open, constantly moving, constantly changing and a lot of trial and error. At times it drove us crazy, but the journey was always interesting. Asif is obsessive, so he needs and wants to see absolutely EVERYTHING, hence our research had to be very expansive. Fiammetta and I read many books, spoke to many people and pulled in tons of archive (from my end, with a lot of support from Laura and Rita, who were always on the ground to help). Throughout the process, we would be discussing ideas with Asif at all times: in the edit, over email, through Whatsapp or team meetings. For Asif, it was important that he was to be able to watch any footage that came in on a timeline, He is very curious and finds appreciation in the smallest and most nuanced things, so we always knew that we could throw in anything that we personally found interesting and there would always be a fruitful discussion.

Laura: Asif delves into the psychology of the character in a way that makes you, as a researcher, approach the subject from multiple angles. I’d say every archive production is one of a kind.  However, a movie that is made with only archive footage is a very different thing. Once Asif told us something like “I don’t use cameras, so you are my eyes”. Then our mission was crystal clear, we had to “show” him Diego Maradona.

How did you manage to gather 500 hours of never-before-seen archive footage? Where did you dig? What was your process?

Fiammetta: The production of the film really took off when the producers James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin secured access to the archive of cameramen Juan Laburu and Gino Martucci, who had worked for Diego during his years in Naples. I came onboard when that archive footage had already been secured. It included mostly football, albeit shot from the side of the pitch and with a special eye on Diego. And it also included some really great family videos. It was an incredible starting point, but we knew there were many gaps we needed to bridge and, indeed, some of the most memorable scenes that are now in the film were found later on, via other sources.

I’d say that rule number one was: research, research, research. You’d be surprised by how many crucial archive cues are buried in books, articles or random YouTube posts!

Second rule was: meet the people. We cast our net very wide and we met and talked in person to as many people as we could. You never know what people may have recorded and then forgotten about it.

And the third rule was: don’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. There were so many instances in which, had I stop at the first ‘No, we don’t have that’, ‘No, we can’t licence this’,  then we would have missed some great moments that are now in the film.

Lina: As Fiammetta said, when we started on the project, On The Corner had just got access to the archive footage of two cameramen who had closely followed Diego’s football career between 1981 and 1991. So when we began, there was already a good foundation for us to get a taste of Diego’s time in Napoli. The archive footage had tons of great football and some fun home family footage, but it was also quite disorganised. There were duplicates, things cut in half or different versions of the same thing. So, we had to go back to basics – that is, create a very tight timeline and as Fiammetta said research, research, research”.

The research allowed us to get a better understanding of the footage that we were logging, but also helped us decipher what was missing or what we thought could be interesting and didn’t have yet.  Once we knew what were looking for, we would reach out to various sources in order to try and trace it. A good example of this would be a clip we released last month, which Asif calls “The Gladiator Walk” of Diego’s arrival to the Napoli stadium in July 1984. This sequence alone, came from three different archive sources. We had read about this conference over and over again and nobody seemed to have it. But we kept on digging and finally were able to piece it together through various sources.

To conclude, the footage was a mixture of broadcast, personal footage (which included Diego’s camera men, family and friends) and private collectors. Every single person that we spoke to or interviewed, we would ask them archive related questions. It was like piecing  together a huge puzzle.

Laura: I mostly worked with Argentinean audiovisual and graphic archives, where we eventually found some archive footage coming from news agencies or international services as well. As mentioned before, Maradona’s life in media is 40 years long and we had plenty of time to work, which made the whole difference. In general as a Latin America based archive researcher / producer, I am given an average of 4 months to cover an entire project, be it  film or series. Working with On The Corner was awesome in that sense: they know how to make good archive productions and they allocate the means for that to happen. We had enough time to work on a highly complex licensing process, which was vital.

What were the biggest challenges you had to face…

Laura: Easy: keeping it confidential. Diego Maradona and his entourage are very active in all kinds of media in Argentina. We were constantly careful of not leaking any sort of information because it could damage the production. Fortunately we managed to get along with everyone involved and it all went on in a respectful way.

Fiammetta: The biggest challenge I had to face was… not having worked in Italy for a long while ! I forgot how convoluted systems can be there, how longwinded and improvised some processes are, how hard it can be to have your emails answered. You really need to be on the ball and be ready to persevere to be able to work there.

But I was also very quickly reminded of how genuinely friendly people there can be. I had the chance to find a few incredibly kind and helpful people and that made up for all the rest of the struggle!

Archive research process in Italy
Italian archive footage from RAI

Lina: There were many challenges, but I would have to go back to what I was saying earlier about archive processes in Latin-America. Although Argentina has a long history of great filmmaking, the archive sector is totally underfunded and under developed, making the archive research and clearing process extremely slow and very bureaucratic. There is no clarity on copyright either, so sometimes it felt like you were jumping through a black hole. There was actually a very frightening moment in post production when we had 2 weeks to pull in all the final masters for the film and at last minute, one of the Argentine broadcasters told us that we couldn’t receive the masters because the archivists had gone on strike and  the issues were not likely to be resolved until the following year. I think I didn’t sleep for two days, trying to find all possible solutions.

… and  your eureka moments ?

Laura: My personal eureka moment was at America TV archive, where Rita and I saw the footage of Diego about to die being carried in an ambulance, Claudia Villafañe, his then ex wife, is with him and asks the journalists to stay out. It was so shocking, I could feel Diego’s pain and that helped me connect with the character. This happened during the first weeks of work, June 2016!

archive research in Argentina
Archive Footage library in Argentia

Fiammetta:  I think the best feeling of this job is when you have spent months of research and tricky conversations to get to some archive and then you watch it for the first time and something jolts in you and you just know it:  that image will be in the film.

It happened a few times to me on this film and every time those specific images come up on the big screen I’m reminded of the very first time I encountered them.

Lina : Ummm. After so much research, there is archive that you come across at the beginning of the process and perhaps don’t think is relevant. But later on (maybe two years later) it becomes relevant and it suddenly it’s like “aha! I know where that is”. And it’s heartwarming, because it makes you realise how important the process is.

How was this experience unique / different from working with other directors?

Fiammetta: One of Asif’s greatest qualities  is that he is incredibly curious and an extremely active listener. While many directors may only be interested in telling you what they think, Asif’s approach is diametrically opposed: he comes to you with a thousand questions, to start with. That creates a very collaborative atmosphere in the team. He is also a die-hard optimist. If an obstacle arises, he will keep pushing – and expect you to keep pushing – till it has been overcome. I found that incredibly motivating and energising. Finally, he has an incredibly fine instinct when it comes to suss personal character and the hidden workings of a story, like the one of Maradona. It has been amazing to be able to watch him find his way into this story and make sense of it. 

Rita: Participating in the recording of interviews in Argentina was definitely a lesson in documentary filmmaking for me. Asif’s way of phrasing the questions, some of which were very delicate; how he managed to make the interviewee feel comfortable to speak from the heart; his obsession in understanding this buildungsroman story of Maradona; his attentiveness to the small anecdotes which at the end were what created this sense of intimacy that is so powerful.

Lina: This is the first director I have ever worked with so closely and so intensely. But from previous short stints and observation, I would say that Asif is one of the most open directors I have ever come across. He is up for and not afraid of a challenge and there is always good dialogue with him. He is compassionate and a good listener. More importantly, he gave both Fiammetta and I a voice and trusted us intimately and I thank him for that, because that’s ultimately what helps you grow

Laura: All things mentioned above and… The unique opportunity of being  Asif’s translator! Rita and I participated of many interviews as simultaneous translators, so that made me see  AK’s storytelling method. He interviews with a narrative arc in mind, because he knows the characters so well that he can anticipate to what they are going to say, and then he manages to make people to open up a little and say something new. I really appreciate the opportunity of being there, I learnt a lot.

Part of the Archive researchers' team in Argentina
Lina, Laura and Rita in Buenos Aires

Do you think Diego Maradona still has secrets from you? Did you develop any special emotional connection with the person behind the icon?

Rita: I can definitely say that I now have more empathy towards Maradona. Before getting involved in the film I was far more judgemental about everything he said or did. After so many months of digging into his fascinating life story, I have developed a sort of fondness that won’t go away easily.

Laura: Definitely, he’s unpredictable. However, I don’t feel the need to know more about him, working in this movie made me understand him as a highly mediatized person, sort of a prisoner of himself, both positively and negatively. I did enjoy getting to know the people who love him, his family, Fernando Signorini, Daniel Arcucci, they were key for me to empathise with both Diego and Maradona.

Fiammetta: I personally never met Diego Maradona. I only got to know him by watching and listening to the archive and by talking to the people who met him and knew him in Italy. And, in a way, I prefer it this way. I feel the world has demanded him to be a specific person before he could figure out for himself who he truly was. So, to have gathered an impression of him through stolen moments that survive in the archive, little slips in the footage and the inconsistencies he expressed here and there, seems like an appropriate way to have ‘met’ him.

Lina : I’m sure there are millions of secrets. But if you want to know the truth, don’t ask him. Haha.

I met him a couple of times with Asif, but I wouldn’t say that I built a special emotional connection with him. Perhaps more one of curiosity.  I think he was often baffled by this Colombian-Anglo girl and Indian-Anglo man. But there was always respect. In a funny way, I think he found Asif quite charming.

Documentary Productions, Licensing, The Right Footage

Fair Use in Documentary: Understanding the Costs


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‘Fair use’ is a term used in the media industries in many countries. However in the United States, ‘fair use’ refers to the doctrine in US copyright law allowing the use of short verbatim excerpts of copyrighted material for a range of “transformative” purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, research, and even parody without permission from the copyright holder. Countries such as the UK and France have their own fair use laws with specific language and guidelines, but these are ultimately quite similar in purpose to American fair use doctrine. In countries where fair use is permitted, this legal framework can be a valuable tool for filmmakers, especially fair use in documentary. However, in some cases, claiming fair use on footage used in a project can present editorial and aesthetic constraints, as well as pose a legal and financial burden to a production.

Here are a few things to remember when considering claiming fair use of copyrighted footage in film and television productions. (more…)

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions

The Documentary Film Industry in 2019: Insights from Peter Hamilton


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Recently, we had the privilege to host Peter Hamilton. Peter is an executive producer and senior consultant to industry leaders, governments and nonprofit organizations in the non-fiction television sector. He is the founder/editor/publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, the indispensable weekly newsletter on the non-fiction TV business where he sheds light on current trends in the documentary film industry. Here we discuss the pros and cons of the rise of powerful SVOD channels with the capacity to reach a global audience. Here’s the interview our CEO, Melanie Rozencwajg had with Peter.

Peter, you are a major expert in the documentary film industry and it is a real privilege for us that you are sharing your vision and insights with Archive Valley’s international community. First, can you tell us a bit more about yourself, when was your blog born and how many years did you have the privilege to work and witness the industry changes from inside?

Thank you, Melanie. I have always loved History since I was a little boy, growing up in Victoria, Australia. My mother liked to take me on week-long trips around the bush in her Morris Minor, with a thermos of tea and a package of roast lamb sandwiches on the back seat. She would stop at deserted graveyards and decipher for me the stories behind the migrations, epidemics and shipwrecks that she read in the gravestones. Her curiosity ignited my love of discovering the past. As a young reporter, I became thrilled by how the film archive brings stories from the past to life. I have served as a senior consultant since 1987. My specialization is marketing and business development. One of my first projects was to help plan and then launch Discovery International. Before that, I was an executive at CBS in New York.

Back in 2010, I decided to share my expertise and industry analysis in an online newsletter. I saw a gap in the trade press for revealing the ‘business of the documentary film and unscripted business.’ I’ve been excited to support Archive Valley’s creative solution to archive research since I first met your team at MIPTV 2018 ( you can find the key takeaways from our panel talk here).

Your blog offers a broad perspective on how and what are the reasons for the current shift and changes in the non fictionindustry. Latelyyou’ve elaborated a lot on the changes and challenges the SVOD channels brought to the industry: how does it affect the broadcasters’ business? and does the rise of distribution channels lead to a rise in content/shows/ documentary productions in order to feed all the different distribution channels?

We are about to enter a time when the pipeline of unscripted programming will be cut back. The rise over four decades of hundreds of Cable / Satellite channels drove a massive increase in commissions because each channel needed a certain number of fresh hours, as many as 600 a year, to fill their schedules, particularly their primetimes. And viewers watched repeats in great numbers

Enter online video platforms led by Netflix: Viewers can now watch want they want when they want to. Binge-viewing scripted series became the preferred way of consuming video.

U.S. channels are quite rapidly losing subscribers and viewers, particularly of repeats. Facing declining revenues, many networks have cut back their acquisitions of original unscripted series and specials. This trend will be replicated worldwide, although with the most resistance occurring in Western Europe and UK.

Netflix’s strategy involves a shift towards commissioning feature documentaries that cut through the clutter by involving ‘auteurs’ as directors, and A-Listers as executive producers, talent and often as subject material.  It’s the Hollywood scripted model applied to unscripted, and it most resembles HBO Documentaries’ longtime strategy.

So the non-fictionbusiness is in flux, things are changing, new structures are developing. What’s your view on the global temperature of the non-fictionbusiness overall?

The new global documentary commissioning pipeline is, therefore, a narrower one, with fewer originals flowing through it. But it involves more “Blue Chip” productions, often with much higher budgets than characterized the Cable / Satellite era. Netflix and Amazon are such dominant players worldwide that I don’t see many competitive SVOD platforms emerging soon who will fill out the demand lost as channels cut their budgets and volume.

So my #1 Takeaway: Fewer projects overall. But more big budget documentaries involving A-Listers, and that are developed along the Hollywood model with agents as their packagers.

Is there, in your opinion, a risk that the distribution channels (svod, broadcasters) will suffer like other industries from industry concentration and monopoly?

The new online video model is a duopoly: Netflix and Amazon dominate, with Hulu chasing them. They are evolving to become platforms that offer subscribers everything from $200 million budget star-studded movies to the NBA and Premier League. Amazon enjoys the most sophisticated model because, as Jeffrey Bezos says, “Video helps sell shoes.” The center of power in video entertainment has shifted: It was shared by LA and New York, with London important in many genres, particularly documentaries. And Washington, too. Now, nearly all cellphones are dialing LA. Disney, Comcast, Apple, Facebook and YouTube are also in the picture. They enjoy tremendous resources, but they have been left behind by Amazon and Netflix.  The BBC plus French and German and several other European public broadcasters will remain important commissioners of unscripted programs as they retain strong tax-based funding and loyal if ageing audiences.

In your own words you said that “Despite the challenging business environment, the global documentary film industry and unscripted sector is responsible for $ billions in annual productions and sales”. Will the competition landscape open up new opportunities and raise the quality bar and the amount of content (shows, films, documentaries…) produced to feed the viewers’ appetite for good shows ?

Industry veterans became certain that our sector would grow forever. The shock of this decade is that the boom came to an end. But it’s not a bust. The global unscripted business will remain a huge mega-billion dollar industry compared to its size back in the early Eighties before the Cable / Satellite boom. It will be somewhat smaller, with more high-quality projects eating up the total pie spent on the genre. Channels will continue to commission originals, though fewer of them and with tighter budgets.

Netflix and Amazon are in a growth spurt, spending furiously to grab market share everywhere. Their hectic spending on original, A-Lister commissions will become more selective as they reach maturity. And new entrants to the online video business will chase them, providing new opportunities for filmmakers, including for specialists in archive-base History.

What are in your opinion to you the next big opportunities and challenges producers/ filmmakers will face with this current industry shift?

Oscar-nominated directors or producers who are working with celebs and A-Listers are finding open doors at the SVOD’s, particularly if they are represented by a credible agent.

The mid-size producers who did well with Cable networks will find the going tougher, but they are still earning commissions. Europeans with strong relationships with public broadcasters will continue to do well.

And outside the commercial economy, the documentary film is one of the most prestigious forms of creative expression today. Governments, foundations and the super-rich together spend billions of dollars every year on feature docs. Their motivations range from winning awards and ten minutes of fame to changing minds. The creative talent involved is often amazing, with the art of documentary story-telling forever finding new ways to compel viewers.

Archival documentaries seem to be experiencing a golden age right now – if we add to that market shifts – it looks like archive sources can gain a lot by connecting with international filmmakers who are looking for new ideas and fresh local perspectives on historical events. Is that your reading of the situation? And what opportunities do you believe are out there for them?

Topics that rely on the archive are hot and are features of Netflix’s list of originals and top-performing commissions. Celebrity bio-docs, portraits of great musical artists, True Crime involving unheard of cases: these are among the genres in great demand. The celebrity bio-docs are particularly high-budget projects, often in the $5-10 million range, because of the cost of clearing the archive and music.

Many mid-priced commissions will rely on resourceful directors and researchers to efficiently discover fresh archive sources.

My final Takeaway is that the SVOD leaders are going global, and they are being challenged by local platforms. Giants like Netflix and their local competitors will all need regional productions to win and retain subscribers. We can see this trend in dramatic series created in Turkey, Israel, Scandinavia, India and more territories. Soon there will be an growth spurt in spending on local documentaries, and archive-based History will be one of the preferred genres.

Peter Hamilton is a senior consultant who specializes in business development and marketing for the unscripted video industry. His clients have included NBC, A+E Networks, National Geographic Channels, Global Canal+ and BBC; the Rockefeller Foundation; and governments, notably Singapore’s IMDA. He has planned and helped launch dozens of channels, notably for Discovery International. Peter is the founder, editor & publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, giving weekly insider analysis to 20,000+ executives and producers worldwide. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage, The Right Footage

“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions, The Right Footage

Interview With Tom Jennings, 1895 Films


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In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from director Tom Jennings, a Peabody and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker. He has written, produced and directed more than 400 hours of programming on a variety of topics, including politics, religion, history, crime, sports, mystery and travel. He has produced documentary films all around the globe, always looking for new ways to tell stories that are informative and entertaining.

Tom lives and works in LA, he’s at the front-row seat of the heart of the industry in the US. This is an amazing opportunity to hear the voice of an acclaimed filmmaker who knows the industry inside-out has and witnessed how it changed and evolved in the past 15 – 20 years.

First, before all the questions about the industry that we have for you – can you talk a bit about you, your work and where it all started for you?

My first job was being a newspaper reporter. I have a degree in journalism from Kent State University in Ohio. I wrote for papers in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles before changing careers to write television documentaries. I made that change in the late 1990s, right as cable networks were taking off. Production companies needed people who could write and thankfully my background made me a good candidate for telling stories that were to the point and easy to understand. When executive producers saw that I could write scripts without much trouble, they started sending me out to do interviews with film crews. I had no idea how film shoots worked, but I knew how to interview people from being a journalist. The film crews I worked with in those early days taught me a lot about production – how to light, how to shoot b-roll and how to be sure I had the proper coverage to tell a story. Those crews were like my film school. I became a director after that and in 2004 I sold my first series to Discovery Channel and I’ve had my own production company ever since. We do films that exist somewhere between pure journalism and television documentaries. It’s a great fit for me and I really love what I do. I’m very lucky.

Tom Jennings, 1985 films

You’ve been working in the industry for the past 15 years, what are the big changes you witnessed in the past 5 years as an insider?

The changes going on in our industry are coming very fast. There are huge changes in the technology we use to create films. Editing systems are more powerful. Access to images from around the globe are nearly instantaneous and our ability to do everything in-house, including mixing and color corrections now possible because systems are more affordable. At the same time, selling programming to networks has become more challenging and confusing. It’s always been difficult to find the sweet spot of what a network wants, but with the advent of streaming services and other internet platforms, there’s a certain chaos going on now. Everyone is trying to figure out how to “cut through the noise” of an immense amount of content out there. My job is to constantly monitor who is buying what, what types of programs do well, what is in the zeitgeist for audiences and can I blend all that together to make films that we find fascinating. So far, we’ve been lucky, and I hope we can continue to make the kind of programming we love, whether it be for cable or streaming.

In light of today’s competitive landscape and the rising demand for content: do producers and filmmakers, like you, feel the pressure to produce more and hence the need to constantly find new ideas?

We are ALWAYS on the lookout for new ideas. Fortunately, for me, coming from a journalism background I have a pretty good instinct of how to find them. When I was a newspaper reporter we had a city editor who would say, “Slow news day, get out on the streets and find me a great story”. It was great training for finding ideas for documentaries. However, I know I have to tailor ideas to what networks want. I may find something that is amazing, but if no one is buying that kind of material than it remains just that, a great idea. I often joke with my staff about how we have to strike a balance between great ideas for films and making sure those ideas fit what can sell. “I could have an interview with Jesus Christ himself,” I tell my staff, “And a network will say, ‘Sorry, we’re not doing religion shows right now.’” Regardless of the idea, any idea has to fit to have a home, or it won’t go anywhere.

Do you think that today’s competitive landscape for broadcasters raises the bar in terms of quality (for documentaries) and does it also require bigger production budgets?

This is a double-edged sword, to be sure. Budgets have always been tight. I’ve never talked with a producer who has said, “We had more than enough money to make that show”. For premium content, especially with international travel or purchasing very expensive archival images, networks acknowledge that the budget has to be big enough to handle those costs. However, even when budgets are small, the expectation of quality is high. We’re always looking for clever ways to stretch our dollars to be sure everything is on the screen.

What does it take to have a good idea for a documentary film? Do unique archives play an important role in the construction of a film?

It takes having a great story, unique access, unseen images, great storytellers and sometimes a well-known actor to host. There are dozens of things that go into getting a show on the air and the alchemy in that process is finding the right balance of all these factors. Depending on the story, archive can play a tremendously important factor. But it’s not like 10 or 15 years ago where old black and white images were used as “wallpaper” (as we say) to help illustrate what someone being interviewed is telling us. Today, our use of archive has to be more vibrant, an integral part of the fabric of the story. Many of our films have ONLY archive in them, which makes a lot of what we do unique. We use the images and sounds from events of long ago to bring those stories back to life in ways that no recreation can. But with archive, there is either too much material or too little. We can spend weeks going through images and footage of well-covered events, but when we need to illustrate a particular moment, often we can’t find anything that fits the narrative. Regardless of how archive is used in a film, if you’re going to use it, use it well.

How do you look for new ideas? Have you built strong relationships with archive sources? Do archive sources come to you to let you know about their unique collections? or do you often look for them?

Great ideas are everywhere. I tell my staff that every day in The New York Times there are 25 ideas for documentaries – and they are NOT in the headlines on Page 1. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Ideas will come to you, but you have to learn how to recognize them – and to dig them out when they are not obvious. Sometimes I’ll just go on the Wikipedia main page and hit the link to “random article”. You would be amazed what can pop up. And though those links aren’t often a perfect documentary idea they can get you thinking about things that may seem random, but suddenly make perfect sense. I’m always reading general interest magazines and newspapers. I listen to as many radio programs and podcasts that I can. I look at what books are selling on Amazon. I keep up with what’s being researched at universities to see if there are new discoveries coming out. I always check in with sources for past films to see what’s new in their lives and ask if they have heard of anything great coming their way. I love going to libraries and just walking through the stacks looking at book titles. I think about all the things happening in the world and wonder what stories are out there that no one has thought to pursue. And suddenly, a light goes off in my brain and says – “That one could work!” And then the hard part starts – research, making sure it hasn’t been done before, and seeing if my bright light moment is something that will fit with the buyers.

When you pitch to broadcasters is the promise of accessing unique archives a selling argument, in order to build original documentaries and captivate a wider audience?

Many of the broadcasters to whom we pitch are extremely interested in hearing about long-lost or never-before-seen footage. The networks definitely use this as a big selling point. I can’t blame them. It gives them marketing leverage in a highly competitive market place. But it pays to know your history when it comes to programming on cable and on streaming. I can’t tell you how many times I see commercials for programs that claim, “never before seen” or “never before heard” and I know that my company or someone else’s company did that same program five or ten years ago. Memories are short these days. Having a background in journalism, I’m always sure that when I bring the networks something special that I know it really is something never before heard or seen. And this works for the audience, as well. If they think they are going to see something new about a story they thought they knew, they’ll be intrigued and hopefully tune in.

Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?

Yes. A few decades ago, there were a handful of people making feature documentaries. Major network news divisions had documentary divisions and there were places like National Geographic Films, which existed longer before the channel. PBS was also a place to sell documentary programming. But in general, the options were limited (and I have to add the caveat this was before my time in the documentary business). When cable television got really going in the 1990s, places like Discovery, History and others wanted a lot of hour-long documentaries to put on their airwaves. It was a bit of a golden age. I worked for several documentary companies during that time and my work took me all around the world to places I thought I would never go, and to meet people I thought I would never meet. Then reality television came along, and let’s face it reality television is basically a hijacked version of the documentary format. But audiences loved those shows and the demand for long-form television docs started to dwindle. About five or six years ago, we were convinced we would have to start producing programming in the reality space because that was where all the work was. And then something happened. I’m still not sure what, but audiences grew weary of reality programming and circled back to wanting better stories and films that felt more unique. Suddenly, the type of films we make are in vogue again. I’m grateful for that.

What makes a documentary project appealing today for US broadcasters and so streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu? (does it need to be international, have already a huge community base of fans, have unique angles, archives etc…..)

Nearly every broadcaster we deal with wants programming that can “travel”, meaning it can be shown anywhere on the planet and people will still find it interesting. To help them with that, we are tasked with often finding new angles on well-known stories that nearly everyone knows. Our film about Princess Diana for National Geographic was one of the highest-rated films the network has ever had internationally (besides doing well in the United States). Her story is one that is known worldwide, so getting people to tune in is easier. The trick is to have a story that is so good that those viewers won’t change the channel. Another network once told me, if you’re going to pitch me a shipwreck story it had better be the Titanic. Even though we have found dozens of great shipwreck stories, many of them with unbelievable archival footage connected to them, I’ll have a much better chance of making a sale if I find something new about the Titanic.